[WARNING: The following contains spoilers from Game of Thrones' episode "Hardhome." If you haven't watched it yet, don't make us tell the White Walker king!]
We bend the knee to Game of Thrones!
Although the series has had its rough patches this season, Sunday's episode "Hardhome" was not only a note-perfect game-changer in terms of story, but it had also better win all the Emmys for its visual battlefield buffet. The epic 20-plus-minute scene included hundreds of undead attacking Jon Snow (Kit Harington) & Co., several blue-eyed White Walkers showing that their boots were made for stalking and a giant in all of his irate glory. All of that, and it was snowing. Winter finally came in a big way to Game of Thrones!
As Lord Commander of the Night's Watch -- which is tasked with defending the Wall from unsavory characters such as White Walkers -- Jon Snow realized that his measly band of Black Brothers had no chance against these unholy creatures and thus went north to the wildling seaside town of Hardhome. His offer was simple: The wildlings would get safe passage and build a life on the other side of the Wall in exchange for joining their forces to fight off the inevitable supernatural attack. With Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) at his side, Jon was able to convince a great number of the wildlings to see sense, but just as their small fleet of boats were pushing off, the wights attacked.
Thousands of the undead descended upon Hardhome, and it should be noted that the CGI was such an improvement from the last time we saw them (killing Jojen Reed, R.I.P.) that we wish the late visual effects godfather Ray Harryhausen were similarly resurrected just to see him weep tears of joy. It should also be noted that the action wasn't just a blur of arrows, bludgeoning and death screams, but beautifully orchestrated carnage that now puts Blackwater in the No. 2 spot for best Game of Thrones battle.
But there is no victory, not even a pyrrhic one, even though Jon Snow manages to flee. Not only has he left behind a treasure trove of dragonglass, the only thing known to kill White Walkers (although his sword of Valyrian steel appears to have success), but the last chilling scene we see is that of the White Walker king raising his arms and then raising the dead. The Night's Watchmen and wildlings who were just killed are now fresh wights -- wighter than wight! -- with familiar faces and glowing blue eyes, and they all will be heading south, maybe not today, but soon. It is a grand and hopeless note to end on, and as Jon Snow sails away, everyone's despair is clear as the only sounds we hear are the cold, cold wind. No music over the credits this week. We're left alone with our thoughts and fears.
But all special effects mastery and bloodcurdling action aside, what happens at Hardhome is a turning point for Game of Thrones because it truly brings home that the silly, spiteful maneuvering for who gets to sit on the Iron Throne is selfish and short-sighted. None of that will matter unless the White Walkers and their minions are somehow defeated. Stannis (Stephen Dillane) made his mark by showing his military might at Castle Black, but he has not seen what we and Jon Snow have seen. At this point, most of Westeros believes the White Walkers and wights to only be childhood fairy tales.
The episode's director Miguel Sapochnik deserves much praise for the deft storytelling not only with the Hardhome plot but the other big stories this week that will, by default, be overshadowed. Cersei (Lena Headey) has no allies in her dungeon cell and no possible way to escape except to confess her seriously horrible sins. Sansa's (Sophie Turner) spirit is not yet broken despite her ordeal and she learns vital information (her kid brothers weren't killed!) that gives her hope and strength to rally. Arya (Maisie Williams) got her first assignment as a Faceless Man disciple and got to change her clothes and hair. And finally, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) had two amazing heart-to-hearts that were so delightfully witty and yet illuminating that for the first time, we can see her truly rule Westeros if Tyrion is by her side as her adviser.
What did you think of the episode? Is there hope for Jon Snow? What will be Sansa's and Cersei's next moves?
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.